Participation, Learning Ecosystems and the Long Tail in Education

How important is participation for learning?  Is it sufficient to supply learning materials to students, or is that in itself not enough to guarantee a valuable learning experience?
Very important,according to John Seely Brown,(JSB) an American researcher and author of The Power of Pull.  He states that participation in study groups is the single most significant variable to predict student success    (difficult to check this, but it is true that Social Network Analysis uses the disconnection of students from learning networks as an important warning indicator for student failure, see this blog post).
Education is still organized on a rather  traditional basis, with a strong emphasis on knowledge transfer.  It is an authority based learning system, where the teacher has the role of a content expert who transfers knowledge and determines what they have to learn ( and so what is useful for their future lives).  It assumes a stable world view with fixed careers.  However, globalization, internet and geopolitical changes have very profoundly changed society, as Tom Friedman has convincingly laid out in The World is Flat.


Why is participation important then for learning?  
  • Teaching stuff to others is a very powerful way of learning.
  • Communication with soulmates enhances motivation
  • Participation helps to Internalize learning materials into your own framework (connectivist approach).

Courtesy John Seely Brown

Web 2.0 tools broaden the possibilities for study groups, since physical proximity no longer needed.  JSB hails online communities of practice where members learn by contributing to a common project.  He points to the open source movement, where people start contributing “at the edge” with small changes and gradually, as they become experts, move to the “center” of the movement, for example allowed to alter the core code of the software programme.  He calls this Learning to be, as opposed to the more traditional “learning about”.  “Learning to be” relates to immersive learning, learning by being a part of a community of experts, like learning astronomy by participating in an astronomy project (like the Galaxy Zoo project).  “Tinkering” with learning content is an important aspect of “learning to be”.
Besides the possibility to create online study groups, separated in time and distance, web 2.0 also offers access to the “long tail in education”.  The concept of the long tail was put forward by Chris Anderson (check the Wired article here), in relation to the opportunity of the web for retailers such as Amazon, to serve a market outside the small bestseller segment.  The long tail in education refers to the possibility to connect with fellow learners, even when your subject is very specialized, let’s say neutrinos, and create “learning ecosystems”.   These are places to find content, share it and engage with others and contribute. 

“Forget squeezing millions from a few megahits at the top of the charts. The future of entertainment is in the millions of niche markets at the shallow end of the bitstream.” (Chris Anderson, Wired, 2004)

JSB is an excellent speaker, knowing how to engage and inspire his public.  He does seem, however, a bit guru-like, presenting very little research evidence to back up his ideas.  I agree with his ideas on immersive learning and the value of taking part in communities of practice  (a MOOC is a good example), although I believe that is doesn’t replace the “learning about” stage.  Having a solid background in a topic is necessary to:
1/ meaningfully engage in a learning community;
2/ identify what really passionates you;
In the H800 course the tutor group can be viewed as a mini-community of practice.  Individual reading and listening assignments are necessary to create a basis from where you can start interacting, sharing and contributing with each other.
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This entry was posted in H800.

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